As a passionate advocate of pastured poultry, I have a companion protocol for people who don’t have a yard or pasture big enough to accommodate portable shelters.  The answer is deep bedding.

In general, in a pastured situation, laying hens need a couple of square feet per day of fresh ground.  Not dirt, but fresh ground.  Many people do not have enough area to offer that.  Some people rightfully start down this path and then find family resistance when playing in the backyard means tracking chicken droppings into the house.  After all, if you have 5 chickens using 15 square feet per day with a minimal 30-day rest period before returning to the same spot, that’s 450 square feet.

Furthermore, in many urban settings predatory domestic dogs are a much bigger problem than even foxes, coyotes and bears in rural settings.  Not only do many dogs exist, but proximity to neighbors makes controlling and negotiating a more touchy situation.

For a lot of reasons, then, urban folks would not want to pasture their poultry.  Here is a simple, chicken friendly, hygienic solution:  deep bedding.  This is a take off from the compost pile.  Almost anybody knows that a minimal compost pile is about 3 feet cubed–3 feet in all directions.  If it’s any smaller, it’s not big enough to create a viable internal community of bacteria and fungi to maintain heat and decomposition.

A functioning compost pile needs carbon, nitrogen, moisture, air, and microbes. It also needs enough mass to support an internal core community of microbial beings who can build roads, schools, colleges, homes, and hatcheries.  Not really, but you get the idea.

Nature sanitizes two ways:  rest and sunshine or vibrant decomposition.  The pastured poultry model that I espouse uses the first method:  rest and sunshine.  But in the winter when we have a couple of feet of snow, or in the brooder house, at our farm we utilize the other option:  deep bedding.

The concept is quite simple.  You need enough mass to support microbes, and that is minimally 8 inches, but preferably more than 12 inches deep.  The microbes will not live right out on the edges, so take away a couple of inches in habitation.  They need enough space to build their communities–a minimum 4 inches.  That leaves us at 8 inches.  Anything deeper is better and more functional.

A great option for people with extremely limited space, then, is to build a coop designed for deep bedding.  I’ve seen many backyard coop designs and precious few are built for deep bedding.  All you need is some sort of containment–chicken wire, heavy mesh, boards, sheet metal–that matches the footprint of your coop.  Make this base at least 24 inches high.  Offer at least 5 square feet per bird– 5 birds could be put in a coop 5 ft. X 5 ft. = 25 square feet.  That’s not much room and doable for thousands of urban settings.

For efficient and functional use, I would make the coop detachable from the base.  That way when you finally do need to clean out the base, you can get a couple of friends to come over and help you set off the coop to expose the compost beneath.  The compost, of course, is far more valuable than raw chicken manure and smells like moldy leaves.

Let’s go through the mechanics quickly.  You’ll start with an 8 inch base of carbon:  sawdust, leaves, wood chips, peanut hulls, bark mulch.  Put the chickens in the little structure and watch them begin aggressively scratching and churning the carbon.  This aerates it.  You can add kitchen scraps in a pan and whatever they don’t eat, like banana peels or orange peels, will be scratched into the bedding. From time to time, add some more carbon.  Gradually life will come into the bedding and you’ll see worms, rolly pollies and all sorts of critters.  That’s just what you can see–the chickens will see far more.

These critters will supplement the birds’ diet in protein.  If the bedding gets a bit smelly or funky, add some more carbon.  Don’t use straw or hay unless you shred it or unless you add just a little bit at a time. The long strands tend to mat and the birds have trouble incorporating it into the litter.

The compost provides warmth in cold times.  During warmer temperatures, be sure to provide lots of ventilation in the coop.  A removable wall would be great.  You may need to add a little water to the bedding if it gets too dry, but normally the birds will waste enough water from their drinker to provide enough moisture.  No need to put in a floor–let the bedding be right on the ground.

As the bedding takes on life, it builds slower and slower.  You will be amazed at how slowly the bedding builds once it passes 12 inches in depth.  The decomposition consumes bulky material.  Clean out may be as seldom as once every two years compared to routine clean out if you’re using the typical skiff of fresh shavings.  That material must be cleaned out every couple of days to eliminate odors and pathogenicity.

The deep bedding controls pathogens because nematodes attack disease-causing bugs.  In a good environment like this, nature provides far more good guys than bad guys.  The deep bedding allows that self-policing (libertarian) community to function vibrantly, providing a sanitary, healthful environment for the poultry.

As an additional plus, it’s far easier to build a Fort Knox coop when it’s stationary than when it needs to be light enough to be portable.  You won’t be stressing about weight if you don’t have to move it every day.  You also won’t be stressing about moving it every day.  This is far more conducive to flexible schedules and predator proofing.  Go ahead and use heavy lumber, heavy wire, and big staples.  If the coop weighs 1,000 pounds, fine.  All you’ll need are a few extra friends to set it off come cleaning time. You can even
mount handles around the sides to let more people get a grasp.  Include a potluck and music to turn this once-in-a-blue-moon chore into a bona fide shindig.

Deep litter offers a great use for fall-dropped leaves.  Just bag them up and keep them dry and you can use them throughout the year.  Overall, you’ll find that the chickens thrive on this living bedding, it takes far less daily maintenance than shallow systems, and it’s far more interesting to watch.  That’s half the fun of kitchen-chickens–watching them express their chickenness.  Now go ahead and get started.

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  1. Tim Bush says:

    Will this also work for waterfowl? We have ducks and geese but no chickens or turkeys.

  2. Tim Bush says:

    Will this also work for water fowl? We have ducks and geese, but no chickens or turkeys.

  3. pblee says:

    Thank you for the clear directions on deep bedding and why to do it. Living in a semi-rural area of Florida makes for an interesting poultry raising experience. I was reluctant to try this at first, due to the fire ant issue, but found that my little flock churned their pine shaving (never straw) base so enthusiastically that the ants never had a chance to set up shop. The few that tried were promptly converted into yummy protein bits. 52 square feet of deep bedding is located in the ground floor wired in coop area, used happily when I am not at home and can’t allow access to their larger pasture run.
    During our very wet summer storm season when flooding occurs, we have made sure that the “upstairs” roosting box is 36″ off the ground, 42 square feet with high ventilated ceilings capable of holding deep bedding for being “cooped up” for extended emergency use. It has worked so far, with the bonus of compost!
    Thank you for your great posts!

  4. Emily C says:

    Thank you for this article. I have been planning to build a coop, and learning about the nuances of building a coop to facilitate the deep-bedding protocol was very helpful, especially learning that the litter should be kept at a base of 12″ deep to facilitate composting.

  5. Gary says:

    I sort of do something similar in my “Off the Ground Coop”. Every morning a throw a hand full or two of scratch under the roosts. I usually open up the coop before first light, so the hens are watching me spread it by flashlight. They really get excited and can’t wait to hit the floor. I use a deep straw bedding and as the hens scratch for the feed they stir there droppings up into the bedding. My wood floor is really clean when it is time to put new straw in. This also keeps the smell down and I can go for 6 months before changing it out.

  6. Carmie says:

    Thank you, thank you!! I just love this. I SO appreciate so much detail. We raised our first broilers in a movable pen in our backyard this year, but started them on deep bedding in the brooder house we built. We first learned about deep bedding from your writings, Joel, and were really glad we did! No odor, warmth from below from decomposition, etc… But we were reluctant to try layers that have to be cared for through the winter. THIS IS SO HELPFUL!!!

  7. Pam says:

    Okay, so I have a chicken coop (first year) and have let the wood shavings/straw build up all summer. The straw was not shredded or mulched when added and the chickens (6 hens and a rooster) don’t seem to scratch inside the coop as they have been out in our small apple orchard (fenced) during the day and only in the coop at night. Now that the weather is colder and the 2 windows in the coop are closed at night, I’ve noticed an ammonia smell when I open their door in the morning. I’m wondering if the “base” that is already there and seems quite compact should be all cleaned out before winter and new bedding put down. It’s probably a good 6 to 8 inches deep right now and I don’t see any bugs. What would you recommend? Thank you!

    • David says:

      Try aerating it maybe? I just mean, try stirring it up yourself a little. Perhaps spread a new layer of wood shavings too.

    • Katie says:

      If you can smell ammonia, there’s not enough carbon in your bedding pack. The smell is the excess nitrogen escaping because there’s not enough carbon to absorb & trap it. And 6 inches isn’t deep enough, you really need to double that. A bale of shavings at the feed store or farm supply is only about $4, give it a shot and see if it helps.

  8. Marian Syrjamaki-Kuchta says:

    When you say to do this deep litter composting method inside the “coop”, do you mean inside the wooden building, or do you mean in the outdoor run?

    I currently use shavings inside the wooden building (and I see that you say to clean this out very frequently….and I do not do it at the moment). I use straw or leaves in the outside run when it’s particularly rainy and muddy in the run. The chickens quickly make all that disappear into the soil.

    I used to use simply chicken wire fencing on metal fenceposts, and I moved that enclosure around the back yard. Now I have a wooden frame outdoor chicken run, and occasionally let the hens roam outside of the run, over the entire back yard garden and yard. No kids here usually to track into the house, and I leave my chicken coop shoes in the basement.

    So, where will I be tossing kitchen scraps over the winter…right into the wooden hen house along with bags of leaves?

  9. WEIZHONG SHAN says:

    I guess I should address to Joel Salatin. Sorry.

  10. WEIZHONG SHAN says:

    Hi, Chris:
    Thank you for the article. Do you have a design of this technique into a coop which fit on a balcony? I don’t have a yard. Balcony is all I have.
    Thank you again. Have a nice day.

  11. Amy says:

    Can you deep litter method in 3′ by 3′ doll house coop? Someone is telling me that I can. And I tried and I just don’t see how?

    My roosts are just 4 inches off the floor. I don’t have the depth to build up enough to get the composting process going. And if I were to build up to 8 or 12″, they wouldn’t be able to get out of their pop door.

    I only have three hens and I’m fine going out there scooping up their poops each morning so the house stays clean. I realize that doesn’t scale if you have a large flock. But I can manage with just the three.

    Curious what your take is doing the DLM in a doll house coop.

  12. Kelly Roberts says:

    Love composting and love chickens, who knew they are two great things that go great together?! A picture would be fantastic for us visual-oriented. Are you proposing that this space (5′ per hen) would suffice for the run? If that’s the case, it is a sweetly compact design. If the coop is elevated 24″ and the deep bedding is 12″, that’s not much vertical space for the chickens… what has been your experience with this design? Is it theoretical or practical? Thanks!

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